Out Of Bounds:Don Byron Makes Music Beyond Category-And Gets Away With It

"Certain blacks! Certain blacks do what they wanna..." -Art Ensemble of Chicago

By Makani Themba-Nixon Nov 20, 1999

1970. There I stood in the large expanse of the school auditorium staring nervously at my reflection in new patent leather shoes. My weight shifted from side to side as I listened for my name. I was to stand in the middle of the auditorium and sing in audition for a play at my elementary school, P.S. 28, near Manhattan’s Harlem-Washington Heights border.

As I began to sing, the teacher stopped me. "Your voice is beautiful but you don’t sing very black. Where is the black sound? How do you manage to sing without that black thing?"

I stood silent and confused. I was black, so how could I not sing black? The teacher continued in the dark as I stood there blinded by the great white spotlight. "Try it again, and this time be yourself. That kind of phrasing is much too complex for people like you."

I just walked off the stage in tears, thinking I might as well have been a gorilla.

Whites are still surprised, threatened, and titillated when people of color break the bounds of their imagination. Perhaps nowhere are the boundaries more inflexible and harder to flee than in performance art. The fascination such stereotype-bending engenders only proves the rule. We might as well have all been gorillas. Gorillas playing the violin. Gorillas singing opera. Gorillas reciting Shakespeare. It would be just as amazing for them to watch.

Perhaps it was my own struggle with both white carnivalization of black achievement and the fight to widen the range of what is black that drew me to Don Byron. The way he stretches the narrow confines of "black musician." And the way it straight up fucks with white folks. Still, Byron doesn’t play the "exceptional negro." In fact, he satirizes it-analyzes it and holds it up for what it is.

His fluid move through various incarnations of jazz (from so-called avant-garde to Latin, to straight ahead), klezmer music, and hip-hop, as well as some incredibly complex, category-defying compositions, have won him both critical acclaim and consternation. On Bug Music (Elektra, 1995), a big band outing, he pulled together Duke Ellington, Raymond Scott, and John Kirby. Tuskegee Experiments (Elektra, 1992), Byron’s haunting, lyrical solo debut, explores what he calls "the two experiments conducted on Black American men at Tuskegee Institute"-the infamous federal "study" of 200 black men with untreated syphilis and the Tuskegee Airmen, black men that were hand-picked and put through tremendous trials and indignities to prove that black people might be capable of aviation.

But he also did a Mickey Katz album to unite forgotten, Yiddish-inspired music with the rest of "lost ethnic" music. He’s even scored Tom and Jerry cartoons. Through it all, Byron stays true to his roots as he romps outside the boxes. His new album, Romance with the Unseen (Blue Note, 1999) is an acoustic set with Bill Frisell, Jack DeJohnette, and Drew Gress. "There will be a lot of babies made to that record," he jokes.

When I met Don Byron, he was animated, thoughtful, gazing over wire-rimmed glasses framed by locks that were wonderfully wild and unprimmed.

Q: You play all this different music from all kinds of traditions. Is this about who you are as a musician, or who you are not? Do you see a common thread moving you between these traditions?
A: I think a lot of white folks take my work as if it is a stunt to freak them out. And let’s face it-when somebody is talking about that, they are asking, "Why are you playing that Jewish shit? How did you get to that Jewish shit?"

I could see early on that they weren’t letting brothers play no fucking clarinet for anything important. So I went from going to conservatories and studying clarinet, to working with some of the Latin groups in my neighborhood. That brought me into jazz. And then out of studying jazz, I went to New England [Conservatory] and somebody started the Jewish stuff.

The clarinet pedagogy was so stupid. They were essentially trying to charm people out of getting involved in improvised music. Even now, I hear they are running this shit that "if you play jazz it will fuck up your sound." All of this stuff is basically anti-jazz and racist.

Jazz clarinet is essentially repertory shit played by white guys. There are no black folks in it. None! You could go to New Orleans and find a hand full of brothers playing jazz clarinet but essentially it belongs in the realm of jazz repertory, which is notoriously non-integrated. I was as unwelcome there as I was in classical music. So, part of what’s happened to me is that I have made a lot of my own opportunities.
There is this whole vibe that jazz is just too hard for niggers because now white people are studying it. Once, when I was at New England, all of the brothers were sitting around trying to play [John Coltrane’s] "Giant Steps." This white guy comes in and says, "Oh, that shit is too hard for you." Walked into a fucking room full of black folks and said that shit!

Q: That’s about how race and intelligence is twinned in people’s minds. Breaking those bounds of white perception of what we are "supposed" to know is a political act.
A: Yeah! It doesn’t have to be. But it is. And this is what my last record was about. The new racism is both occupational and intellectual. Except there is a new twist to the racial shit: white folks are entertained by their own racism. Take a band like Hootie and the Blow Fish. They could only exist because of how they publicized their shit-the shock of seeing this brother sound like that. It’s all about the brother. The Tiger Woods shit. It’s occupational racism.

A lot of times when people talk to me it’s really clear that they have a very small window of what I am supposed to know. And that by crossing over-crossing over into shit that I am not supposed to know and maybe even, in some cases, shit that they don’t know-I have this entertainment value.

Q: Speaking of occupational racism, let’s talk about Dick Sudhalter and his piece in the New York Times about how white jazz musicians don’t get their due.
A: A cat like Sudhalter actually learned to play and came up through these systems that are remnants of that whole Glen Miller/repertory era. And white cats are still coming through those bands. They are developing young musicians and none of them are black. If there was no American racism there wouldn’t be any need for Glen Miller.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t white guys who were down with the level of intensity that black folks were playing with. Nobody is not giving props to Charlie Haden or Jimmy Giuffre. These cats were innovators. But you can’t equate somebody who has spent their whole career imitating Bix Beiderbecke who was imitating Louis Armstrong and say that he was equal to Louis Armstrong. The real question for me is this: Can something be considered jazz if it was never intended for "negroes" to hear it?

It’s different music because there were different people serviced with it. They had different functions in society, especially in that era. Black folks had an underground feel. The whole social context around Glen Miller’s music was way over ground. Nowadays, when you talk about race you must be a racist. When you are talking about a white band, it is "unfair" to say it sounds different than Count Basie’s band. Of course it does. You go to the Glen Miller gig and people are just kind of dancing (blandly). You go to the Count Basie gig and motherfuckers are throwing each other up in the air.

Q: What about Wynton Marsalis’ comment that avant-garde jazz is this blip, this temporary thing, like it doesn’t mean anything?
A: Whenever cats like Wynton and Stanley Crouch say that somebody is avant-garde they are basically doing two things. They are telling you that the cats can’t play jazz. And they are also giving people that have had bad experiences with the avant-garde a signal that they are not going to like this music and they shouldn’t even bother to check it out. That is dangerous.

I don’t think "avant-garde" means much of anything else. Think of the space of all the music that happens in America. People don’t say that a band like Sonic Youth is avant-garde and all they are doing is playing free, playing noise, playing sound. It’s always interesting to me how much noise people will tolerate on the guitar. That guy [from Sonic Youth] can’t even finger a scale. And he’ll tell you that. But he is one of the heroes of the guitar. So even meters and stuff like that, in the space of American composition, is really nothing.

But one thing about [Wynton] that really bothers me is that every once in a while you will see him insulting some brother about their "European-ness" or lack of "jazz." When he never calls some white cat on that shit. Never. Here is a cat that is funded by the Lincoln Center, that’s funded by Phillip Morris and has all of this white money and influence, insulting other musicians about their "European-ness."

Q: Is there any relationship between the art you make and some kind of larger social change thing? Is there anything that you particularly try to convey?
A: I just try to be consistent with my shit. It’s easy to get down and talk about the past. Even Tuskegee Experiments, although it’s not the safest thing to name your first album after, is far enough in the past that the people involved are dead or in an old-age home. I think when white folks talk about racism, their first instinct is often to exonerate themselves. It’s like, "Do you think that I am a bad person just because I am white?" We don’t have to go there-but let’s get to what you think. Let’s get to what you do. Like we are supposed to talk about race and not talk about whiteness. That’s like doing a piece about slavery with no white people in it. To me, that’s some sad shit. That’s about as unthreatening as you can get on a subject that’s quite relevant.

Nu Blaxploitation, Blue Note, 1998
Bug Music, WEA/Elektra Entertainment, 1996
No Vibe Zone: Live at the Knitting Factory, Knitting Factory Works, 1996
Music For Six Musicians, WEA/Elektra/Nonesuch, 1995
Plays The Music Of Mickey Katz, WEA/Elektra/Nonesuch, 1993
Tuskegee Experiments, WEA/Elektra/Nonesuch, 1992